New Grant for Studying “Underproduction” in Software Infrastructure

Earlier this year, a team led by Kaylea Champion were announced as recipients of a generous grant from the Ford and Sloan Foundations to support research into into peer produced software infrastructure. Now that the project is moving forward in earnest, we’re thrilled to tell you about it.

In the foreground, the photo depicts a rusted sign with "To rapid transit" and an arrow. The sign is marked with tagging-style graffiti. In the background are rusted iron girders, part of the infrastructure of the L train.
Rapid Transit. Photo by Anthony Doudt, via flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The project is motivated by the fact that peer production communities have produced awesome free (both as in freedom and beer) resources—sites like Wikipedia that gather the world’s knowledge, and software like Linux that enables innovation, connection, commerce, and discovery. Over the last two decades, these resources have become key elements of public digital infrastructure that many of us rely on every day. However, some pieces of digital infrastructure we rely on most remain relatively under-resourced—as security vulnerabilities like Heartbleed in OpenSSL reveal. The grant from Ford and Sloan aims will support a research effort to understand how and why some software packages that are heavily used receive relatively little community support and maintenance.

We’re tackling this challenge by seeking to measure and model patterns of usage, contribution, and quality in a population of free software projects. We’ll then try to identify causes and potential solutions to the challenges of relative underproduction. Throughout, we’ll draw on both insight from the research community and on-the-ground observations from developers and community managers. We aim to create practical guidance that communities and software developers can actually use as well as novel research contributions. Underproduction is, appropriately enough, a challenge that has not gotten much attention from researchers previously, so we’re excited to work on it.

Although Kaylea Champion is leading the project, the team working on the project includes Benjamin Mako Hill, Aaron Shaw, and collective affiliate Morten Warncke-Wang who did pioneering work on underproduction in Wikipedia.

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